Farming Down

Farming Down (Patagonia)

Nitrogen manufactured with fossil fuel dovetailed neatly with the rise of industrial farming in the United States and Europe. Its fortunes climbed yet higher after World War II, when wartime chemical factories found themselves in need of civilian purposes. New seeds for staple crops like wheat and corn were developed to be more responsive to this chemical fertilizer, and government extension agents were deployed to encourage farmers to apply it. By the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. scientists and farmers alike had all but forgotten Howard’s Law of Return. Monocultures of grain were harvested out of the soil each season, but nothing except chemical fertilizer was put back in. This put farmers on a treadmill, in need of ever more fossil-fuel-based fertilizer as they depleted the natural fertility of their soils. Facing a crash course with bankruptcy and climate change, vanguard organic farmers like Dave decided the only way to survive was to opt out of chemicals altogether.

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When Dave and three friends founded Timeless, their goal was to create farming systems that could sustain themselves without chemical fertilizer and herbicide. Pretty quickly, the founding farmers figured out that monocultures of wheat and barley, the typical commodity crops in their area, weren’t going to cut it. They needed to diversify their rotations to add back in the nutrients these crops were removing from the soil. Looking around the world for inspiration, the Timeless founders observed that most traditional farming systems rotated grain crops with either livestock or legumes—plants in the bean and pea family that could work with bacteria to fix their own nitrogen. Recognizing the genius of this homegrown fertility strategy, the Timeless farmers immediately started planting legumes as soil-building crops, which helped boost their organic matter. But they also needed an income stream. So they found a harvestable bean adapted to arid, short-season farming: lentils.

The more I read, the more it seems to me that American Western Civilization is a blight.

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